Where universal human rights come from

Universal, inalienable human rights do not come from God and they do not come from nature. They are decided and reaffirmed every day by society. Because we are human, and because the human world is crazy and chaotic and beautifully unstable, our universal human rights are fluid. They evolve, they stretch, they are re-defined and re-interpreted by every generation.

That doesn’t make them any less universal or inalienable. It just makes them … human.

The idea of a “universal right” is a very specific tool in the philosophy of politics. Actually, it’s more-or-less a band-aid. A patch. Actually, it’s more like that little piece of folded up cardboard that you put under one leg of a table to keep it from wobbling.

Let me explain.

þe olde abbreviated Hiftorie of Politicks

For thousands and thousands of years, people were organized into small groups. In these groups there was one leader that more-or-less had the final word about everything. In fact, this type of organization was likely going on before we even were humans, since we see it in all sorts of primates and other mammals as well.

As human societies grew, the power of this single leader grew.  The structure also became more complex, with the invention of all sorts of departments and branches and local constituencies and committees and secretaries and other networks and nodes of power. But even with all of that complexity, the ultimate power tended to rest with a single person.

Then one day (metaphorically) people said, “Screw this, we all should have a say.”

Actually, this happened several times throughout history, with differing levels of success and failure. But the point is, they invented this idea called “Democracy” in which everyone had a say and nobody was left out. It was a beautiful system where nothing was unfair and therefore everything was glitter and rainbows for ever after. The end.

Except, of course, that it wasn’t like that at all.  Even the most bright-eyed of idealists realized that there was a flaw in this plan.

The “Democracy idea” seems fair at first glance, until you realize that it basically means mob rule.  As someone famously once said: Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to eat for lunch. Democracy can lead to 51% of the people effectively enslaving 49% of the people if they really want to. And most people would agree: that isn’t any more fair than the whole King-Dictator-Despot system that they were trying to get away from.

SlaveryIn other words: Democracy was a nice useful coffee table… with a wobble in one leg.

There was still slavery, there was still unfairness, and the majority didn’t really have to care about what the minority thought, until they found themselves in the minority on some other issue and realized that they, too, could get royally screwed.

So, people invented the idea of “universal inalienable human rights” as the piece of cardboard to put under the leg to stop it from wobbling.  The “universal human rights” idea was the thing that would stop the 51% from doing whatever the hell they wanted, because…. well, they can’t go against something that’s universal and inalienable, right?  Right.

“It’s not up to me! It’s just the way it is!”

From the beginning, people felt a strong need to justify the universal-ness and inalienable-ness of the rights by attributing them to something bigger than themselves.  To me, this seems like the act of insecure men. Instead of just saying, “Everyone has a right to not be a slave because that’s freaking obvious and can’t we all just agree to not be dicks to one another?” people felt like they had to push off responsibility and say that the right comes from a creator, or a God, or nature, or whatnot.

That’s fine, except of course that logically it’s a terrible argument. Even in the 1700’s, when both American colonists and crazy French people were making claims about “inalienable rights,” there were plenty of philosophers who pointed out that the idea of “God given rights” was logically incoherent.

In a weird way, it’s almost like they were reverting back to the old “King” approach to government, isn’t it?  By saying that people can vote on some types of rights, but God gives us other rights that people are not allowed to vote on, Thomas Jefferson and his crew were basically saying, “We’re sort-of a Democracy, but oh by the way there’s still a King, it’s just that we are now calling him this Natural-Law-Creator dude. But he’s there, you can’t vote him out of office, and he’s given you these rights.” Therefore: he’s a King.

It even makes sense that people would gravitate back to this kind of argument in times of need, right?  I mean, human beings basically evolved to respond to power and alpha-male politics, so it makes sense that our instinct is to justify even “basic human rights” with an appeal to an alpha-male figure. (Freud would agree with me, I’m sure.)

But here is the problem with that.

By saying that the list of “universal human rights” emanates from some kind of King-like Supreme Authority–even if you call that authority something neutral like “nature” or whatever–you are absolving yourself of all responsibility for deciding what your society calls “right” and “wrong.”

That is the act of a coward.

Even worse: that attitude will make you forever angry and displeased with politics. You will see humanity as continually struggling to discover or meet some kind of externally-defined ideal. And quite naturally, you will therefore see humanity as always failing.

Here’s the rub: that’s not what is going on at all.

The Process Is The Product

Universal and inalienable rights exist because we collectively, as a culture, have decided upon them. They evolve as we collectively, as a culture, evolve.

How do we decide? How do they evolve?

By exactly the process you see going on around you in politics right now. This messy, chaotic, combative, insane process.  This beautiful process that involves protests and anger and dramatic speeches and terrible injustice…. every single part of the human dynamics going on around us IS THE WAY THAT WE DECIDE.

The process is going on all around us.  Universal rights aren’t something you have, the way that you have an idea or a job or a nice pair of shoes.

Universal rights are something that you do.

If you are sitting around, asking yourself how the United States will come to a decision about whether (to take an arbitrary example) health care is a universal right or not, then you are blind and missing the point. You are like the college student wondering what his life will be like “once it starts,” not realizing that his life is a program already in progress.

That is why, in the end, I love the fact that we live in such turbulent times. Although there is much pain and suffering, and of course much injustice, in the world that we live in, there is still beauty in the big picture. Every terrible event, just like every beautiful speech, is a part of how we as human beings decide what it means to be a human being.

We’re doing it right now. Our rights don’t come from God. Our rights don’t come from nature.

We are creating our universal human rights, every single day that we live, along with everyone else.

It’s the most exciting thing in the world.